OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — On Wednesday, a Bay Area environmental group will file a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, accusing the feds of not protecting children from pesticide drift.
The story of one Northern California family illustrates the issue. In the River Bend farming community of Tehama County, strawberry fields are everywhere.
“It does make me nervous,” Melissa Sleezer told KPIX 5. Sleezer, her husband Sam, and their two young boys live feet away from a strawberry field owned by Driscoll’s, a popular brand found in supermarkets.
While the field is lying fallow now, once a year it gets fumigated before planting. “What we see is a machine with 12,13 people in these white chemical suits, gas masks, full gear,” said Sam Sleezer.
The fumigant contains chloropicrin, a former chemical warfare agent. There are conflicting studies over whether it causes cancer. But Melissa points to a University of California scientific panel that warns chloropicrin could be a “potent carcinogen,” dangerous for her kids.
“They talk about they are 76 times more likely to get cancer, having been exposed to this stuff,” she said.
Driscoll’s has always reassured them there is no risk. “They will bring you strawberries,” Melissa Sleezer said.
“And they say, ‘Oh you are perfectly fine, we would never put you in danger,’” Sam Sleezer said.
The children’s grandfather, Manuel Silveira, was skeptical. Oakland-based Pesticide Action Network helped him set up drift catchers, to monitor chemical droplets in the air during fumigation.
Manuel recalled the results. “It was scary! Especially for the kids,” he said.
Pesticide Action Network found levels of chloropicrin almost two times higher than what scientists paid by the state said is acceptable for adults. For children, it was four times higher.
But California considers much higher levels acceptable. Despite the families’ appeals, the state did not find Driscoll’s in violation.
“The state and the federal government have set these levels so high that it’s impossible for them not to be within their legal rights,” said Sam Sleezer.
“We follow all the appropriate laws and best practices in the industry,” said Kelley Bell, the Director of Community and Environmental Initiatives at Driscoll’s.
Bell told KPIX 5 that the company has even gone above and beyond the law, paying for the Silveira family to stay in a hotel during fumigation.
We asked Bell if all the precautions that are taken during fumigation, including sometimes paying for families to leave and stay in a hotel for a few weeks, concerned her. “What I think what that points to is that we are completely committed to following the law,” she said.
It’s all very disappointing for the family. “We have to try to come together and just come up with a way away from these really super dangerous chemicals,” said Sam Sleezer. But the strawberry industry said those safer alternatives are years away.
The state decided to go with higher acceptable levels of chloropicrin to conform to U.S. EPA guidelines. In the lawsuit that will be filed against the EPA on Wednesday, the Pesticide Action Network wants the feds to make the regulations stricter, for the sake of children.
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